Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross had long been an admirer of Benjamin Franklin, and wished to see him on a coin. In 1933, Sinnock had designed a medal featuring Franklin, which may have given her the idea. Franklin had opposed putting portraits on coins; he advocated putting proverbs on coins about which the holder could profit through reflection. In a 1948 interview, Ross noted that Franklin only knew of living royalty on coins, and presumably would feel differently about a republic honoring a deceased founder. Indeed, Franklin might have been more upset at the reverse design: as numismatic writer Jonathan Tepper noted, “Had Benjamin Franklin known that he would be appearing on a half dollar with an eagle, he most likely would have been quite upset. He detested the eagle, and numismatic lore has it that he often referred to it as a scavenger. Given the practical man that he was, Franklin proposed the wild turkey as our national bird.”
An 1890 statute forbade the replacement of a coin design without congressional action, unless it had been in service for 25 years, counting the year of first issuance. The Walking Liberty half dollar and Mercury dime had been first issued in 1916; they could be replaced without congressional action from and after 1940. Mint officials considered putting Franklin on the dime in 1941, but the project was shelved due to heavy demands on the Mint for coins as the United States entered World War II. During the war, the Mint contemplated adding one or more new denominations of coinage; Sinnock prepared a Franklin design in anticipation of a new issue, which did not occur. The dime was redesigned in 1946 to depict fallen President Franklin Roosevelt, who had been closely associated with the March of Dimes. The Walking Liberty design seemed old-fashioned to Mint officials, and the only other coin being struck which was eligible for replacement was the Lincoln cent. Abraham Lincoln remained a beloved figure, and Ross did not want to be responsible for removing him from the coinage.
In 1947, Ross asked Sinnock to produce a design for a half dollar featuring Franklin. The chief engraver adapted his earlier work for the obverse. He had designed the medal from a bust of Franklin by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Sinnock based his design for the reverse on the 1926 commemorative half dollar for the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of American Independence. Numismatic writer Don Taxay later discovered that Sinnock had based his Liberty Bell (as depicted on both the Sesquicentennial half dollar and the Franklin half) on a sketch by John Frederick Lewis. Sinnock died in May 1947, before finishing the reverse design, which was completed by the new chief engraver, Gilroy Roberts. Similar to Sinnock’s work for the Roosevelt dime, the portrait is designed along simple lines, with Franklin depicted wearing a period suit. The small eagle on the reverse was added as an afterthought, when Mint officials realized that the Coinage Act of 1873 required one to be displayed on all coins of greater value than the dime.
The Mint sought comments on the designs from the Commission of Fine Arts, which was provided with a lead striking of the obverse and a view of the reverse; Taxay suggests they were shown a plaster model. On December 1, 1947, Commission chairman Gilmore Clarke wrote to Ross saying that they had no objection to the obverse, in which they recognized Sinnock’s “good workmanship”. As for the reverse,
The eagle shown on the model is so small as to be insignificant and hardly discernible when the model is reduced to the size of a coin. The Commission hesitate to approve the Liberty Bell as shown with the crack in the bell visible; to show this might lead to puns and to statements derogatory to United States coinage.
The Commission disapprove the designs.
Numismatist Paul Green later noted, “Over the years there would probably have been even more puns and derogatory statements if there had been an attempt to depict the bell without a crack.” The Commission suggested a design competition under its auspices. Its recommendations, which were only advisory, were rejected by the Treasury Department and the coin was approved by Treasury Secretary John W. Snyder, which Taxay ascribes to an unwillingness to dishonor Sinnock.
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